Mary Beth Meehan is a photographer who creates large-scale public installations for communities in the United States, Her portrait banners inhabit public space and spark conversations and dialogues about immigration, culture, and changing communities.
Meehan received a B.A. degree in English literature at Amherst College and an M.A. in Photojournalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia. She held a residency at Stanford University and has led workshops at New York’s School of Visual Arts, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and others.
Her public art installations began in her hometown of Brockton, Massachusetts and continued in New England, the Midwest, the South, and Silicon Valley. Her most publicized work is “Seeing Newnan” an art installation that upended this small Georgia community, known as the “City of Homes” for its antebellum architecture.
In 2016, Meehan was commissioned by the town’s Artist in Residence program to make art that would counteract the town’s race and class tensions as its population went from 12,000 people in 1986 to more than 40,000 people with most new residents coming from non-white backgrounds. Its Asian population – while still small – grew more than fivefold between 2000 and 2017. In April 2018, a neo-Nazi group held a rally in a park near the town’s courthouse.
Meehan spent more than two years visiting Newnan, spending hundreds of hours interacting with residents, photographing people and community events, and leading discussions about racism and the town’s new identity. Her inclusive installation consisted of 17 large-scale banner portraits, which were hung on brick buildings downtown. Her portraits included an African American woman who worked in a sewing factory; a white worker who packed blankets at a local mill; a Mexican waitress; a Baptist preacher; and an elegant woman in her ornately appointed home.
The portrait that garnered the most attention was that of the Shah sisters: Aatika and Zahraw, photographed wearing traditional hijabs and long sleeved garments. The first reaction to them was an anti-Muslim backlash. Some people protested on Facebook that this picture shouldn’t have been shown since the young women weren’t from Newnan although they had lived there for twelve years. Some said that the young women weren’t American or that – while they were not dangerous – the town should not have embraced them. The Facebook post eventually drew nearly 1,000 responses, and in time most of the responses were positive in defending the sisters and their right to be included.
Meehan hoped that her portraits would help people see one another more clearly and enable deep conversations to take place. Her portraits, which will come down in June, 2020 have already had a lasting effect on the town.
Meehan was a former staff photographer at The Providence Journal where she was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Boston Globe.